Fishing boats lie stranded more than 100km from the sea, victims of a terrible environmental disaster.
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In the north of the autonomous Karakalpakstan Republic in Uzbekistan is a truly bizarre sight. Here, surrounded by sand, fishing vessels lie stranded in the scorching desert, more than 100km from the sea.
Moynaq was once a thriving fishing community on the southern banks of the Aral Sea. But now the water has gone, and all that remains is a desolate ghost town that feels far away from the rest of the world.
A shrinking life source
The Aral Sea was once the fourth-largest saline lake in the world with an area of approximately 68,000sqkm, stretching from Kazakhstan in the north to Uzbekistan in the south. But in the 1960s, when Soviet rulers diverted the course of the two rivers that fed it to develop cotton production in the region, the waters started to recede. The salinity levels also rose drastically, killing most of the fish that remained. Over the next 50 years, this terrible environmental disaster caused the once-magnificent Aral Sea to shrink to just 10% of its former size.
Waiting for the sea
The Moynaq fishermen followed the water at first, believing that everything would soon return to normal. But as the years passed, it became clear that the water was not coming back. Just 18,000 residents are left in Moynaq’s desert wasteland; more than 100,000 people are estimated to have left, many heading to Russia and Kazakhstan in search of work.
An empty town
Today, the sleepy town of Moynaq is populated mostly by livestock herders, cotton workers and elderly people taking care of their grandchildren whose parents have left to find work.
Those who remain are faced with numerous potential health problems. The toxic pesticides and fertilisers used in cotton production have heavily polluted the dry seabed, resulting in chronic illnesses such as cancers, birth defects and respiratory and immune disorders. The rate of oesophageal cancer in this area is 25 times higher than the world average.
A land of extremes
The weather has also changed over the last few decades. Before the water started to recede, the sea controlled the area’s climate by reducing high temperatures and softening the harsh Siberian winds. The inhabitants of Moynaq now endure excessively hot summers (up to 50C) and extremely cold winters (down to as low as -40C).
A more fertile future
Although life has irrevocably changed in Moynaq, there is some vestige of hope on the horizon. In 2003, Kazakhstan, with the help of the World Bank, started the Northern Aral Sea restoration project to restore water to its northern section of the lake. Today, fishing is now possible there – albeit on a smaller scale than before – and there are new signs of life on the sea banks. Hopefully one day this initiative will be replicated in Uzbekistan, and fishing boats will once again grace the waters around Moynaq.